February 27, 2016

Book: Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me)

A book about self-justification

How do you see yourself, and how would you describe it?

Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me)

Until I read this book, I’ve seen myself as a rational, reasonable human being, most of the decisions I made were the best judgements I could give given the situation I was in. Of course I made mistakes, and there’re some “would have’s” but most of the people would’ve done the same. I act like as a humble person everyday but I do know deep down there’s a arrogant aspect of myself, and I’m fine with that.

This book just helps me to uncover those events I consciously or subconsciously self-justified as “I’m right”, it could be perfectly described as:

When we explain our own behavior, self-justification allows us to flatter ourselves: We give ourselves credit for our good actions but let the situation excuse the bad ones.


The book explores self-justification through the territories of family, marriage, memory, therapy, law, prejudice, conflict and war. It helps us to preserve our beliefs, confidence, self-esteem and self-image, but also could get us into big trouble in all these areas.

You may or may not be aware of it, but it’s happening everywhere. Like when you take a super cheap economic flight you would speak to yourself, “look at how much money I’ve saved, this is definitely worth the pain and inconvenience”, and once you get the chance to take on first class, “look at the service and comfortable seat, this is definitely worth the extra money to enjoy a good journey”.

There’re some fascinating writings and stories in the book, how politicians could ever speak like a silly person, how the law enforcement is flawed, how even professionals reject obvious evidences and still claim they’re right, how convenient memory is and could be tweaked to support our version of self-image, how perpetrator and victims interpret to same event, and how a person who seems perfectly normal could ever firmly truly believe he’s abducted by an alien and even have children with them.

Here I’d like to pick up a few topics and add some of my takeaways.

A Pyramid of Choice

You may have heard the quote: “We are the choices we make”, that’s indeed the truth but itself fails to reveal a compound effect of decision making. It’s as if we we gain 1 point when we do one thing good, and -1 when we do something wrong, but it’s not that flat.

This book introduces this new concept of pyramid, a pyramid of choice. At the very beginning, we’re all at the top of a pyramid, and then we face a situation in which both choices have each benefits and costs, like cheating or not cheating in an important life-changing exam. Then you make a decision with an implicit side-effect: you’ve justified it. Next time when you encounter the same situation, you’re highly possible to repeat the same action you made before, otherwise how would you explain the last action? Admit you’re wrong now?

Whenever you make a seemingly just one-time decision, you’re actually starting a process of entrapment — action, justification, further action — that increases your intensity and commitment and may end up taking you far from your original intentions or principles. So each time, remind yourself: how do you want to step down the pyramid or just want to be slid down to nowhere near your initial goal. Once you slide down you would fight yourself so hard to climb up.

This also reminds me of the hot news: FBI tries to force Apple into a backdoored iOS for “just this one time, we swear!”. Cook tells them no way. Apple is refusing to do so because that means to create a “master key” that could unlock any iPhone and no one could guarantee to do no evil.

Comparing the technology news to psychology may sounds absurd but I can’t help thinking, does it also mean whenever we use the excuse “just this one time I swear” to indulge ourselves, we’re indeed trying to forge a “evil master key” that leads to a dark path we definitely don’t want to go in the first place.

The big question is, again, would you like to step down the pyramid, firmly, towards who you really want to be, or just slide down with some crappy excuses to nowhere near your original destination?

Self-awareness, Letting Go and Owning Up

The structure of book is Chapter 1~7 to explain in very details of self-justification in various areas, and then Chapter 8, the last chapter to give you some advice you can take once you’re aware of the wrongs and want to make it right. Maybe it’s constructed exactly this way to prevent people from hunting “quick-fixes”, but if you’re suffering extreme regret of actions you’ve taken, and eager find a way to cope with the scar on the soul, I recommend you to pick up this chapter first.

The book says there’re 3 stages in the act.

People can’t just skip the Act 2 to true redemption. It says “Active, self-reflective struggle to see the silver lining is a key ingredient of maturity.”

The guidelines I summaries is:

1. Self Awareness - I Could Be Wrong

In our private relationships, we are on our own, and that calls for some self-awareness. Once we understand how and when we need to reduce dissonance, we can become more vigilant about the process and often nip it in the bud, catching ourselves before we slide too far down the pyramid. By looking at our actions critically and dispassionately, as if we were observing someone else, we stand a chance of breaking out of the cycle of action, followed by self-justification, followed by more committed action. We can learn to put a little space between what we feel and how we respond, insert a moment of reflection, and think about whether we really want to buy that canoe in January, really want to send good money after bad, really want to hold on to an opinion that is unfettered by facts.

2. Accountable External Procedure

Because most of us are not automatically self-correcting and because our blind spots keep us from knowing when we need to be, external procedures must be in place to correct the errors that human beings will inevitably make and reduce the chances of future ones.

3. The Arduous Journey to Self-Compassion

Something we did can be separated from who we are and who we want to be. Our past selves need not be a blueprint for our future selves.

The road to redemption starts with the understanding that who we are includes what we have done but also transcends it, and the vehicle for transcending it is self-compassion.

Getting to true self-compassion is a process; it does not happen overnight. It does not mean forgetting the harm or error, as in “Ah, well, I’m basically a good, kind person, so I’ll treat myself gently and move on.” No; you might be a good, kind person but you are one who committed a grievously harmful act. That’s part of you now, of who you are. But it need not be all of you. It need not define you—unless you keep justifying that act mindlessly.

At last, as the book says, the most dangerous thing is not you make a mistake and find an excuse to escape from it, it’s the terrible thing you committed and are still being blind about it. I was that person, and I’m feeling extremely thankful for this book to make me open my eyes and reflect on past events.

I confess, I was wrong, I’m sorry.

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Qihuan Piao

Qihuan Piao

(aka kinopyo) is Chinese based in Tokyo. Software writer. He shares stories inspired him in this blog. His infamous line - "I feel calm when I kill those monsters, or people (in game)" shocks his friends deeply.

He also writes in Japanese and Chinese.